Gillian Bowler: ‘The first successful business woman many of us actually noticed’

Tough and driven, the travel entrepreneur disrupted the entire Irish industry

Bowler: There was probably more to come in a remarkable life cut short at 64. Photograph: David Sleator

Bowler: There was probably more to come in a remarkable life cut short at 64. Photograph: David Sleator

 

She blew into Dublin from London in her early 20s, with no capital, no security and little in the way of a formal education. Within a few years, Gillian Bowler had disrupted an entire industry.

Some of us still recall the jolt of joy at sight of the first brochures in that dingy, single-room basement office in Baggot Street in 1975. At a time when traditional tour operators were churning out the same generic, colour images of high-rise hotel blocks and elegantly arranged bodies in beachwear against a uniformly blue sky and sea, Bowler’s were brilliantly simple, black-and-white confections, designed for ease of reading. They were crammed maps and facts about specific bars and restaurants – and the kind of food and prices you could expect – all laced with practical advice.

Within their simple covers, those brochures exuded youthful anticipation. They radiated a promise of sea and sand and risky, romantic entanglements on a holiday that felt like an authentic, backpacking adventure even while it was efficiently packaged, perfectly safe and budget-priced.

It was all about Greece in those early days. Bowler and Budget Travel gave us an entree to the joys of island-hopping, to the dazzling white-washed pensions and tavernas, to ouzo and feta and moussaka congealing in the baking sun, at a time when the crammed Spanish tourist traps of Salou and Majorca were the most exotic places on offer.

Told it straight

Most unusual of all was the fact that her little booklets gave the facts, warts and all. While other brochures magically erased the giant, dusty car park or half-finished monolithic slab a few metres to the right, Bowler told it straight.

That sweet apartment in Corfu only a few minutes from the beach? It was “only for the young and fit – there are 93 steps up it”. There were breezy warnings about the plumbing: “Look, we’re in the Mediterranean. All the plumbing won’t go wrong all the time but at least some of the plumbing will go wrong some of the time”. Nothing was adorned.

A pension was a pension, with a bathroom on every floor with any luck. It was always basic but clean, cheap and cheerful. And you were usually five minutes from the beach and probably paying £100 less than anyone else for it.

From the day she opened in the Baggot Street basement, she led from the front, a gifted communicator who would never write a letter if she could pick up the phone. She branded herself quite brilliantly with the trademark sunglasses worn like a headband over her glossy mane, indoors and out, and spread the word that she was “princess of the world’s tides”.

She was the complete package: ridiculously young, astute, innovative, sociable, a consummate networker, the first successful business woman many of us actually noticed or wanted to be.

It was many years before she admitted that Dublin had shown a distinct lack of generosity in its approach towards her youth and gender. She had the effrontery to be an entrepreneur at a time when the travel trade exuded machismo.

For 10 years, as Budget Travel flourished in a stagnant economy, it met with sharp hostility from the trade. “Business was made very difficult for me,” she told The Irish Times. The rule was that you could only sell to other members of the trade organisation but first, you had to be a member yourself. For 10 years, they refused to let her in.

Tough and driven

At the first tour operators’ meeting following her acceptance, some 80 companies were represented; within 10 years there were five, she observed. The interviewer noted that she was quite unsentimental about the loss.

She was tough and driven, as noted by the negotiators for the Granada Group, to whom she sold Budget Travel for an impressive £4 million (€5 million) in 1987. The deal included a continuing role as joint managing director with her husband, Harry Sydner, on a combined income of about £400,000 reportedly.

While her early experiences of macho hostility had obviously left their mark, she believed that women had to play men at their own game, rather than try to change the system.

In 1988, she caused a major stir with an address to a Fianna Fáil women’s gathering in Dún Laoghaire where she outlined her business philosophy: “Business must always come first, ahead of any outside interests you have – even ahead of your family. Your family will be sacrificed. They will have to learn to be self-sufficient. You can’t put your family first and the business second – it won’t work”.

Women’s main failure, she believed, was “being kinder and reluctant to hurt people’s feelings”.

When women complained about being harassed at bus stops where large Budget Travel posters depicted a female’s barely-covered bottom and Bowler was ordered by the Advertising Standards Authority to cover them up, she responded accordingly. A strip reading, “Don’t get left behind”, was plastered across the woman’s rear. It would be hard to imagine an Irish-born businesswoman pulling off a similar stunt.

Her fearlessness and particular sense of humour were probably a product of her background. Born in London to an Irish mother and British father, and reared mostly on the Isle of Wight, her schooling was disrupted at 13 by a near fatal kidney ailment and she never went back.

Greek holidays

By the age of 16½, she had found a job in London with a tiny company operating holidays to the Greek island. At about 20, she landed in Ireland to open a branch here and met (and later married) Sydner, then the owner of the Blueskies travel business.

By 1993, the highly profitable Budget Travel had 38 per cent of the Irish package holiday business. Seven years later, she and Sydner had cut their ties with Budget Travel and she became a keenly sought-after director.

In 2004, among other adornments, she became the first woman to chair an Irish public limited company, Irish Life and Permanent, the State’s largest mortgage lender at the time. Although she was tarnished by her position in IL&P when the crash came, she never attracted the vitriol inflicted on other prominent figures in the institutions.

The sale of her company at a young age meant she was free of financial worry and she said she was “no longer materialistic”. She had many interests beyond business. Through the years, for example, she had built a fine collection of modern art and became the founding chairwoman of the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

She used the freedom to travel to favourite destinations such as Greece and the United States with Sydner – “an aviation nut” – and to spend more time in their Wexford home, where they kept donkeys among other pets.

She never faded away. Only six years ago, she founded an online travel website, Clickandgo.com. There was probably more to come in a remarkable life cut short at 64.

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